Full coverage of politics takes time, resources

TV/RADIO COLUMN

TV stations should avoid appearance of slapdash

May 22, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Late last month, President Bush sought renewed coverage of his "clear skies" proposals to address air-quality concerns by placing limits on three kinds of pollutants. But he did not use the bully pulpit of the White House to draw reporters to the story. Instead, he spoke with the scenic vistas of the Adirondacks behind him, as an unseasonable snow fell.

Several television networks and cable channels carried the story, but briefly. The handsome footage of Bush was accompanied by only a fleeting mention of opposition by environmental groups that say the regulations are far too lenient to be effective.

The same dynamic plays out repeatedly, as TV news teams often cover complicated issues glancingly, and even then prompted by obviously staged events, the type that fill an election year. Interviews with seven experienced journalists and political hands suggest pitfalls for the region's stations to avoid as they cover this year's governor's race:

Giving reporters too little time to turn around stories. Television reporters are often required to contribute reports at midday, several times throughout the evening and sometimes again at night. The approach promises an air of "immediacy" that runs reporters ragged. It also often forces them to sacrifice the extra phone calls or quiet moments of reflection that allow them to grasp what they're about to put on the air.

Giving reporters too little time to tell their stories. On local newscasts, political stories are often limited to two minutes or less. Shorn of context and nuance, issues are often defined in shorthand by starkly opposing camps. While many news managers say they don't have much time within each half-hour newscast for the stories, the same stations carry extended features about the Preakness, the lottery or the Ravens.

Assigning reporters to cover only what is readily in public view - a press conference, an announcement, a hearing, a photo opportunity. Politics and policy involve life below the surface, where hidden actors play and private agendas are often at work. Those events occurring in public are not the only stories worth recounting.

"Covering politics on television is difficult," says Margaret Cronan, news director for WBAL-TV (Channel 11). "Our job is to keep it interesting visually and, at the same time, tell people what they need to know."

Sending out reporters unfamiliar with the beat. I previously covered Maryland's members of Congress. In 1999, Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County had been rumbling about challenging Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes the following year. That March, it became clear to me she wasn't serious about a statewide bid when she was the only Marylander to vote against a House bill that would have slapped trade sanctions upon foreign steel importers - a measure favored by many unions involved in the steel business. While people close to her confirmed that insight, I would never have picked it up had she not been part of my regular beat.

"It's become more and more evident to me that we have journalists who are not specialists in politics or policy," says Baltimore Times associate publisher Anthony McCarthy, a former aide to several Baltimore Democratic politicians. "If they can't explain the context or the importance, that's really a disservice to viewers."

While some reporters have developed expertise - such as WMAR's Lou Davis or WBFF's John Rydell - not one Baltimore commercial station maintains a full-time political reporter in Annapolis or at City Hall.

There are promising signs, however.

WBAL has hired former WBFF (Channel 45) anchor Deborah Weiner, a native Baltimorean and a former ABC News correspondent, to file political stories and other explanatory pieces as a part-time reporter. Her first story was a smartly layered piece about the legal challenges facing the Catholic Church over the sexual abuse scandals. In October and November, she'll be tracking the home stretch of the governor's race.

"Politics has always been my passion," says Weiner, who had left her anchor's chair partly to spend more time with her children. "There are great stories that aren't always told on television. There's a lot of drama, and a lot of maneuvering."

WJZ news director Gail Bending says her station will emphasize issues that separate the candidates and take the time to explain them completely to viewers, a valuable service if executed well.

And, officials at WBAL and WMAR (Channel 2) have pledged to renew the commitment made in 2000 to devote five minutes a week to coverage of candidates for major public office. And Maryland Public Television promises to sponsor as many debates and interviews with candidates as it can.

Television stations can cover politics - if they really want to.

A word on ratings

The May sweeps period ends with largely good news for the region's ratings leader, WBAL. The station has largely maintained the ratings of its newscasts, morning, noon, evening and late night. In some cases, they have grown.

Yet WJZ, relegated to second place in all but early morning and noon, has held steady in some spots and seen slight growth in the size of its late-night newscast audience, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research.

The greatest shifts occurred for WMAR, where Nielsen estimates suggest the station lost a quarter of its viewers for its 11 p.m. newscasts, when compared to last May. This loss occurred despite a new, snazzier look and the heavily promoted partnership with The Sun, which included some cash prizes for viewers.

General manager Drew Berry notes that Baltimore ratings for ABC's prime-time schedule, which precedes the late news, has decreased by about one-third since last May.

"The drop is not good news," Berry concedes. "The good news is that [WMAR] did a better job with the audience handed to [it] than the network did."

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